Tobias Hill - Underground. PDF

PDF I picked this up while visiting London probably 10+ years ago, largely based on its outstanding cover design and it's lingered on my shelves unread until last week. Like the cover, it's richly atmospheric and claustrophobic, but to call it a "thriller" (as the jacket copy does), is somewhat misleading. The book revolves around Casimir, a Polish immigrant who has been living in London for about eight years. The chapters alternate between the story of his present life working in the London Underground as a kind of tunnel and infrastructure inspector, and the story of his childhood in Poland. It's intimated that something happened in his childhood in the 1960s that led him to leave Poland completely behind, sending remittances to support his father, whom he will never forgive for some mysterious transgression.

In the present, he lives in a nearly empty room more akin to jail cell than a home, and keeps entirely to himself, with no friends or even acquaintances to speak of. However, when someone pushes a woman under a train, he takes an interest, an interest that leads him into the path of a beguiling homeless woman who may be living in the Underground, and might be insane. The story of these two desperate souls trying to connect at some level with each other feels a little too self-conscious, sort of like an indie film that's trying a bit too hard to milk the theme of beauty/love in a grim world. However, the depiction of the physical space of the Underground is captivating — even as I struggled at times to orient myself, the feeling of the place oozes from the pages.

Meanwhile, the storyline of his childhood in Poland has a number of memorable scenes, but feels very much of a type of "growing up behind the Iron Curtain" tale. There's the childhood romance, a secret cave in the woods, a fall through the ice, a drunken father who is a smuggler/speculator, the unstable mother, the dark secrets lurking in the ashes of World War II. It's all well-told, and provides a stark contrast with the present-day chapters, but they do sit uneasily next to each other. I suppose in the end, I left feeling that the author did an excellent job of creating vivid settings and evoking mood, but the storytelling itself wasn't too my taste.

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